Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Citizen of the World

I just spent the last hour and a half watching as my preconceptions about everything East of the Prime Meridian were pounded to powder.

It was the most influential hour and a half of my Near Eastern Studies education as it stands thus far.

Back up. Today was day one of REAL classwork. Not as opposed to fake classwork--just more of it. Last week we had only Old Testament and Ancient Near East to worry about (which was more than enough what with a reflection paper due today and a test in ANE this Friday). This week we have been additionally loaded up with Israel, Palestine, and a language (Hebrew for me). Hebrew was a breeze--I already know most of the alphabet and vowel markings, and today we covered only a few phrases and the letters A and B (aleph and bet), so I get the feeling that Hebrew is going to be pretty smooth sailing.

Everything else, on the other hand... Let's just say I feel like I have enough homework to keep me busy from now until Rosh Hashana. Looking all my syllabi, that's not actually such a big exaggeration.

Anyway--back to my now non-existant preconceptions.

This morning we attended Israel class--which my teacher calls Judaism, Zionism, and the State of Israel. Professor Yarden was not what I had expected. I know exactly what I was expecting when I thought of a Hebrew teacher. I had unconsciously pictured a Hebrew-speaking man with payots and a prayer shawl from the start--stereotypical and stupid though that may have been. As you might have already guessed, I was dead wrong. Professor Ophir Yarden was close shaven, wore slacks and a polo shirt, and while he does speak Hebrew he is originally from the States. My only indication of his faith was the brown leather kipa on the back of his head.

He is an excellent teacher and kept us engaged from the very start. He started by working us through what exactly Judaism is. Culture? Race? Ethnicity? Political affiliation? Religion? There are arguments for all of the above and he showed us every one of them. He also showed us all the different places Judaism might have started--Abraham (the patriarchs), Moses (the law), David (the kingdom), Babylonia (the exile), the return to Zion (the rebuilding), the Pharisees (the practices), or the Rabis (the law and practices without a temple). He showed us the arguments for each. His feeling was that Judaism began with the exile to Babylon. Most peoples, when taken over by another country, would begin worshiping the new country's God, feeling that since their country had been beaten their new country's God must be the stronger. Israel wasn't much different then. "Average Joe Ephraimite" was a monolater--and accepter of one God but not a disbeliever of others. The exile changed that. The Israelites got to Babylon and realized that something was not right. "How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?" "If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning..." etc. God was back in Israel, not in Babylon--and so a strong faith, different from any other in its time, was born.

Right there--my understanding is different. I felt like I was enveloped in Judaism for a while today and came out understanding more than ever before.

Just now I came away from my Islaam/Palestine class. Our teacher did not lecture us about Islaam or Palestine specifically today. Instead, he talked to us about the way we ought to view this course. He started by asking us what the Middle East is. Middle of what? Well, I thought, it's that part sanwiched between the Near East and the Far East, right? Right. But in relation to what? What was the reference point for determining the "middle" East, or even that it was East at all? The Arab nations didn't decide that--Britain did.

The next hour was spent quickly as Professor Bashir laid before us the many ways in which we simple human beings tend to generalize, categorize, stereotype, and oversimplify. He told us about the dangers of xenophobia, the fear of the strange and foreign, and xenophilia, the love of the foreign for the sake of its being foreign. On the whole, the poitn was this: we have great big assumptions about Arabs or Eastern people or Muslims that simply aren't true because it's not as simple as we think it is. For example, we get certain ideas into our heads when we think about a Muslim. But do we think about the Chinese-born Muslim who lives in Brooklyn and has been speaking English his whole life? Probably not. There is too much complexity, too many hues and shades of gray, for us to be able to draw the bold and simple lines we do.

Above all, Professor Bashir pointed out something particularly striking. He knows about us Mormons--we didn't need to toe any non-proselytizing lines for him to have some understanding of our faith. He put it to us that we should be more sensitive to these false perceptions than anyone because we and our predecessors have been victims of those very problems since the begining. We Latter-day saints have been persecuted and driven away and falsely accused because of warped perception and inadequate understanding. This should be important to us--and it certainly is going to be for me from now on.

There was much more in the lecture of a similar nature, but I think you understand the concept. I was stunned. I am stunned. I have always considered myself a fair person when it comes to critical thinking and weighing opinions. I never realized exactly how warped and distorted and oversimplified and uninformed my perceptions were until now. I am determined that they are going to change. I look forward immensely to learning from Bashir Bashir (yes, that's right) and Ophir Yarden so that my perceptions will have basis in fact and personal experience, not in generalizations and simple assumptions. I look forward to being able to go back to the States and watch the news or read a paper and be able to weigh for myself what is real or false, tainted or true, without taking the potentially distorted word of others for fact.

I want to be a well-informed, fair-minded, critical-thinking individual. I want to be no respecter of persons--Palestinian, Arab, Jew, or Gentile. I want to become, as my father says, a "citizen of the world."

I think I'm on the right track.


A play-by-play sum-up for anyone who cares:

Sunday was my free day. I walked the ramparts of the Old City wall with some friends during the morning. I also successfully navigated all of those friends--about twelve people--through the Jewish quarter, around the Hurva Synagogue, past the Church of the Holy Seplechure, through an Israeli street market, and out onto the main street right by Jaffa Gate, which was exactly where we needed to be. Lo and behold, I have an internal compass--and it works. Hallelujah and Ilhamdulilla!

Left to right: Jaelyn, Lauren, Brandon, Kathryn, and  what's-her-name (sorry--I can't remember).
Overlooking the Muslim quarter from the Western ramparts. Who can spot the Dome of the Rock?
I went back to the city later that afternoon with a couple of girls who needed a third buddy to get into the city. It was then that I bought and happily ate my first falafel (with french fries in it--who knew, right?). It was AMAZING. I was an instant convert. Next weeks installment: the Schwarma. Stay tuned.

Photographic evidence of my first-ever falafel (and Rachel Holdrige's, too). Believe it. 
Yesterday was our first field trip--the Jerusalem Overlook Adventure. We went to several sites all around Jerusalem took look at the city and the countryside from different angles. It was amazing--every stop was a new experience. We stood on a ridge overlooking Bethlehem and remembered the birth of the Savior. We stood on the last rise before Mt. Moriah (now the Temple Mount) and pictured what Abraham might have seen from somewhere near that spot as he approached the mount to sacrifice his son. We covered our heads to enter a synagogue beneath a mosque (long story) commemorating the Prophet Samuel, then looked down at the hills where he would have found the shepherd boy Saul and annointed him King, and also across the valley to Gibeon, where battles were fought and where Solomon received a discerning heart from the Lord by night. We entered a Lutheran church called Augusta Victoria, where we sang "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "Be Still My Soul" in the echoing nave before ascending the bell tower to look out over the hills (223 steps--whew!). It was an amazing day. I learned so much in so few hours! Next weeks trip is to a Bedouin weaving facility and the Negev--I can't wait!

Love you all--Ma'asalaama! Shalom!

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